A Church in Flux

Author: Robert S. Pelton, CSC, '43


Mexico, Central America, South America, portions of the Caribbean: It would be impossible to paint Latin America in a single portrait. The same is true for the Catholic Church in that region, where an array of parish plans, liturgical forms and concepts of church vary greatly from nation to nation as well as from parish to parish.

Surprisingly, despite being the dominant religion for almost five centuries, the Catholic Church only came into its own in Latin America with Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. That 1965 effort to transform the Catholic Church into a “world Church” that integrates its values within diverse cultures was enthusiastically embraced by the Latin American bishops. So they gathered in 1968 in Medellín, Colombia, for a watershed convocation during which they mapped appropriate actions based upon contemporary Church thinking and the prevailing cultural realities of Latin America.

“Four and three-quarter centuries after Catholicism arrived on these shores,” wrote the Chilean historian Jorge Goles in 1970, “the Latin American Church was born, bringing with it a new Pentecost that must be preserved.”

The enormous range of cultures and the rapidly changing realities within Latin America had demanded multiple responses from the Church at the most local levels. The bishops had to find effective ways to meet the spiritual and temporal needs of parishioners while simultaneously maintaining close bonds to the universal Church. Their extensive social analysis produced a much sharper awareness of Latin American life and recognized repression, poverty and other violations of human rights as institutional sin.

And so the new spirit, based on the work coming out of Vatican II and the Medellín conference, arose from three initiatives that became the cornerstones of the Latin American Church: the preferential option for the poor, small Christian communities (or CEBs) and continuing opposition to that type of economic development which can make the lives of the poor even more difficult.

Last May, some four decades since the Latin American bishops gathered at Medellín, about 260 Church leaders convened in Aparecida, Brazil, for the fifth Conferencias Episcopal de America Latina—CELAM V. I was fortunate to have been a peritus (adviser) in the last session of the Second Vatican Council, as well as a close observer of the historic conclave in Medellín. A credentialed journalist at all the intervening conferences, I was invited by the U.S. Secretariat for Latin America to be present at CELAM V.

The bishops at the conference did unequivocally endorse and expand the three key concepts of the Latin American Catholic Church. Many also expressed acute concern about the challenges posed by environmental aggression, which is endangering the Amazon rainforest; globalization; rapid urbanization; the changing roles of families and youth; and the demand for much better dialogue with the indigenous and Afro-American communities. They also analyzed such ongoing issues as greater decision-making roles for women in the Church, and balancing the roles of ministry and the laity.

That the bishops are now focusing more attention on these issues than at any other time in CELAM’s history suggests a growing commitment to adapting the mandate of promoting social justice to meet the demands of present realities.

A history of tension

Tension between Church and state, between the institutional Church and its people in Latin America, has been the dominant story throughout the history of the Church in this New World. Although the 16th century missionaries were deeply committed to sharing the Gospel, their work was thwarted in 1530 when King Charles I of Spain prohibited non-Spanish priests from entering his American lands without royal permission, which was rarely granted. All too often the early Latin American Church was reduced to the role of civil agency in service more to the Spanish crown than to God and His people.

Despite major successes by some individual priests, the Latin American Church as a whole spent much of the 17th and 18th centuries in stagnation or, even worse, in conflict. Royal decrees in 1752 and 1754 removed the religious of all orders from most of their Indian parishes, crippling efforts to evangelize the indigenous peoples and to protect them from neglect and oppression. The Jesuits were expelled from the entire continent by royal proclamation in 1767. Few European clerics volunteered for missions in Latin America, and many of the religious already there saw little opportunity for fruitful ministries.

The struggles for independence and the rise of autonomous nations beginning in 1808 profoundly altered the political-ecclesiastical balance of the area. It also posed new challenges for the Church. Although religion did not cause the revolutions, major shortcomings within the Church—its vast wealth amid extreme poverty, its history of collaboration with the elite power structure, and its frequent failures to oppose institutionalized social and economic injustices—undoubtedly contributed to broad popular support for constitutional separation of Church and state in the newly independent nations.

Although the Catholic Church of Latin America was theoretically free from governmental interference for the first time, its position remained unstable for more than a century. An overwhelming majority of Latin Americans regarded themselves as good Catholics, but relatively few recognized much connection between their faith and their daily lives. The Church remained “otherworldly,” without much regard for social justice or advancement of the kingdom of God, and its moral authority rarely extended beyond the sacraments.

Recognizing the need for profound revitalization, Church leaders began to re-evaluate both their thinking and their pastoral practices in the mid- to late-1950s. Papal teachings on social justice, and lay movements such as Catholic Action and Cursillos de Cristiandad had great impact. The Latin American Church was being prepared for important changes as the decade ended and Vatican II began.

The preferential option for the poor

The vast majority of experienced Latin American priests regard the preferential option for the poor as both a guiding principle and as one of the most crucial elements of their pastorates—one that not infrequently relates to the very survival of many millions of destitute persons. In a region gripped by poverty, acute social injustices and institutionalized sin, the preferential option for the poor has become a keystone of the Latin American Church’s post-Vatican II dedication to a Christianity that unites faith with justice, with promotion of people and societies, and with service to the kingdom in accord with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The option continues to serve as a lifeline to countless millions of marginalized persons and as a key element of the Church’s social mission.

In a concrete demonstration of the necessity for the preferential and evangelizing option for the poor, the bishops at CELAM V issued a statement to the leaders of the G-8 nations—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Great Britain and the United States—calling for the elimination of extreme poverty from all the world’s nations before 2015 and making that goal “one of the most urgent tasks of our time” and “inseparably linked with world peace and security.”

Those small Christian communities

In the late 1950s in Brazil, because of a shortage of priests, there began what were called “Sunday Services without priests.” These were small gatherings of the faithful, coming together to reflect on the Sunday scriptural readings as they related to everyday life.

When the Second Vatican Council began in 1962, there was heightened awareness of the community-based dimension of the Church, as had been true in its early days. In 1968, at the Medellín conference, the Church gave strong official impetus to the formation of small Christian communities because of their potential to give flesh to the Biblical image of the Church as the people of God—a concept highly valued at the Second Vatican Council.

Over the years and in various Latin American countries, some of the Comunidades Eclesiales de Base became known more for their political activism than their pastoral work. Additionally, some Church leaders still fear that the small communities might break away from the institutional Church. This is a concern I do not share.

At the conference in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, the bishops emphasized the dynamic linkage with the Church by strongly supporting the CEBs. In Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1992, however, support for the Basic Ecclesial Communities was weaker. At Aparecida, in 2007, there was a much stronger emphasis upon the role of CEBs. Even so, at Aparecida some bishops were not totally comfortable with these communities. The tension between the Church as institution and the Church as community continues.

The most successful CEBs make special efforts to attract young people, to better serve the youth and to revitalize the communities. Almost two-thirds of the members are women, which contributes to a certain empowerment of women in the Church and in local civic society.

Active support from the Church hierarchy indeed has waxed and waned over the years, but occasional reports of the condemnation of CEBs are unfounded. The Instrumentum Laboris (1997) statement of the Synod of Bishops for America calls base ecclesial communities “the primary cells of the Church structure” and views them as being “responsible for the richness of faith and its expansion, as well as for the promotion of the person and development.”

The role of women

Somewhat less controversial than many other issues in Latin America, the role of women within the Church and within secular society is by far the largest issue in terms of the number of persons it directly impacts.

“Faces that Question Us,” part of the conference Synthesis—a document that summarizes the contributions from numerous local dioceses and committees in the immediate preparation of CELAM V—presents a troubling portrait of the realities faced by all too many Latin American women:

Countless women of every condition have suffered a double exclusion by reason of their socioeconomic situation and their sex. They are not valued in their dignity, they are left alone and abandoned, they are not sufficiently recognized for their selfless sacrifice and every heroic generosity in the care and education of their children or in the transmission of the faith in the family, nor their indispensable and special participation in building a more humane social life and building up the Church in the merging of its Petrine and Marian dimensions sufficiently appreciated or promoted.

Several years ago, Sister Aline Marie Steur, CSC, a veteran missionary in Latin America, shared some similar observations: “Women continue to offer the main support of the Church and to comprise the overwhelming majority of its active members, but the inclusion of women and women’s issues does not reflect their numbers, their contributions, or their needs.”

CELAM V—which included 25 women among the 266 participants—gave the role of women more attention than any previous general conference of the Latin American and Caribbean bishops. The Vatican-approved final document praises motherhood as “an excellent mission of women” but also says that motherhood “does not exclude the need for their active participation in the construction of society.” A later paragraph calls for women to have decision-making roles in the Church, and decries “discrimination against women and their frequent absence in organisms of ecclesial decision.”

Deacons and lay ministers

“I am the only Bible that most people will ever read,” a laywoman said recently, while leading scriptural study at a casa culto, a “house church” in Havana, Cuba. Her statement may sound self-aggrandizing, but it accurately reflects the prevailing reality faced by the many millions of Latin Americans who must find ways to cope with such obstacles as shortages of ordained clergy, limited seating capacities of churches, lack of transportation, and ethnic or socioeconomic differences that make some parishioners fear they will be unwelcome in the churches of their “betters.”

For these and many other members of the faithful, lay catechists and deacons are often the primary source of pastoral care and teaching. Recently, for example, Father José Oscar Beozzo, a leading expert on Brazil’s religious vocations and training, pointed out that 80 percent of all the Sunday celebrations in Brazil are led by laity.

Working at the grassroots of the Church, with different degrees of success, lay ministers have long been essential both to the faithful and to the Church, and their role continues to grow. They preach the Word to those who would otherwise rarely hear it or might not understand it in more formal modes of expression. They preside at the celebrations, comfort the ill and the bereaved, and find countless other ways both to animate the journey and to contribute decisively to the role of the laity as protagonists within the Church. In fact, Edward Cleary, O.P., director of Latin American studies at Providence College, cites the 1.1 million lay catechists currently active in Latin America as a basic strength of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

The bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean are keenly aware both of the lay ministers’ contributions and of the need to promote a still more active laity. The bishops’ position is not new, but there seems to have been a significant rise in Vatican support for lay involvement in the Church’s ministries. Rome has long endorsed lay ministries, but it has often done so cautiously. In Aparecida, however, Pope Benedict urged the laity to join with priests and religious in an ambitious program of evangelization and missionary and pastoral outreach.

A crisis of vocations?

The dramatic rise in lay involvement has been partly necessitated by the decline in clergy to serve the Latin American Church. Father Beozzo has repeatedly pointed out that Brazil has just over 18,000 priests to serve 140 million Catholics. The numbers vary from diocese to diocese and from country to country, but all 20 Latin American nations are experiencing shortages of priests and nuns so pronounced as to leave gaping holes in the Church’s pastoral nets.

Father Cleary recently reported that the number of seminarians throughout Latin America has increased by about 400 percent since 1972, so Latin America seems to be responding to this global need more successfully than perhaps any other region. Certainly, the shortage of priests, sisters and brothers throughout Latin America is nothing new, nor is it as pronounced as it was throughout most of the past 500 years.

Charismatic movements

Both the Vatican and the Latin American bishops have expressed concerns about the number of people being drawn away from the Catholic Church by the various charismatic movements and by evangelical Protestant churches, but those concerns are often misunderstood. Declines in church rolls do not threaten the existence of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Additionally, the Catholic Charismatic movement, sometimes blamed for drawing members away from the mainstream Church, is having the opposite effect.

The rapidly growing Catholic Charismatic movement is helping the Church to share in the religious renewal that is sweeping across many areas of Latin America. The charismatics also help retain those active Catholics who seek a “high energy” Mass and the practice of charisms, and who might otherwise leave the Church to join one of the fundamentalist Protestant denominations. In Brazil and many other nations of Latin America—as in portions of Africa, Europe and the United States—the rapid growth of the Catholic Charismatic movement has made charismatics a major constituent in many parishes.

Pope John Paul II regarded the Catholic Charismatic movement as integral to the renewal of the Church. Popes Paul VI and Benedict XVI have both cautioned charismatics to remain fully grounded in the universal Church, but they have otherwise acknowledged the many positive elements of the movement. Although most of those who join evangelical or Pentecostal churches come out of the Catholic Church, most researchers agree that the majority come from the nonpracticing sector of Catholicism.

Nevertheless, the decrease in the per capita percentage of Catholics in Latin America is real. In Brazil, for example, the most recent national census revealed that 74 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholics in the year 2000, compared to 89 percent in 1980. Those who self-identified as charismatic, evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants grew from 7 percent to 15 percent during the same period. Similar trends have been documented in three Mexican states and in four Central and South American nations in addition to Brazil, which remains the country with both the highest per capita percentage and the greatest number of Catholics on Earth, approximately 140 million.

Pope Benedict undoubtedly had both facts in mind when he made his call at Aparecida for the members of the Latin American religious community to remain “courageous and effective missionaries” in order to maintain Catholicism as the dominant religious force on the continent.

The Catholic Church of Latin America did indeed come into its own with the Second Vatican Council and the CELAM convocations. It is continuing that mission today, facing many strong challenges but displaying a deep sense of commitment and perseverance to become what Karl Rahner, S.J., and other theologians term ecclesia semper reformanda—the eternally self-reforming Church.

Robert Pelton, CSC, is contributing to and editing Aparecida, Quo Vadis?The book will be published by the University of Scranton Press in 2008.